The Core of Our Culture: An Attitude of Respect

Photo by Gee Hae Jeong

Photo by Gee Hae Jeong

By Sabrina Hao

Respect is something I was taught at a young age back home in China. My family was not wealthy, but my father always encouraged me to pick up my bowl when eating as a form of respect to my ancestors. He also warned me never to point my chopsticks at anyone because it symbolized considering myself before others. Little did I know, these unassuming moments at home would go on to inspire me to educate others about etiquette and manners. Lately, I have been reflecting upon the core of my work, and what it means to an entire society to foster respect and good etiquette, and to develop authentic relationships. It has to begin from a personal place, with a mindful attitude and conscious respect for the world.

In Chinese tradition, respect for elders and others is of utmost importance, and is the common thread at the heart of the culture, no matter what region or generation you belong to. This is rendered in many everyday situations. For example at home, addressing all your family members at gatherings and dinners is a form of respect. When you enter someone’s home, you must acknowledge them formally to show respect and politely note that you have arrived. The youngest in the family should also pour tea for the guests in order from the oldest to the youngest and always serve themselves last. At school, students must greet teachers when they enter the classroom. Embedded within these practices is an underlying notion of reverence.

When I moved to Canada, I found that many practices from China and Western cultures were meaningful. At first, I did not understand the cultural differences between the two societies, as the nuances are abundant, from body language to spoken language. After being immersed in Canadian post-secondary education and diverse working environments I realized the transition was not as large as I initially imagined. However, there was a requisite common denominator within both systems, that of respect for oneself, for one another, and for the community. There are more commonalities between Canadian core values and the core values of my Chinese heritage than I thought, which secures my identity and has fundamentally shaped my comfort of becoming an integrated and productive citizen.

Photo by George Pimentel

Photo by George Pimentel

That said, with my observations and awareness of etiquette on high alert, I have also witnessed particular exchanges which have caused me discomfort. The qualms come from the lack of authenticity within these interactions that leave me with gaping questions about our greater modern society and where respect comes from. For instance, when shopping, sales associates may look at me from head to toe to assess my spending habits, rather than to get to know me first to see what might be the best fit for what I can spend.

It causes a rather awkward moment which is quite the opposite from what I was taught as a child, to begin with a nod and smile, acknowledgment and conversation. I recently learned that technology within shopping malls are able to detect and measure the body heat of consumers in order to understand the preferences and desires of shoppers, which I find quite invasive. Ultimately, the goal at large seems to be to increase sales and make more profit. However, these kinds of interactions lack the sincerity of respect and comfort of real human interactions.

Even when making conversations with others, a genuine care for others is also missing in the many encounters I recently had. Being someone who enjoys socializing and connecting, what I often see is a saturated tone of indifference. It seems as though we have advanced to become more technologically-connected, but now suffer from people becoming more and more disconnected from each other. The care for one another is often diminished behind a digital screen or common greetings and replies such as “How are you?/I’m fine, thank you. And you?” Empty and meaningless words are exchanged through text messages, emails, and most perplexing, in person. Ironically, genuine expressions of affection are taken as a common greeting. And moments of genuine response to common greetings are often perceived as being too personal and invading the distance that we have learned to place between people. As a result, the fundamental respect for one another is often lost when both parties are playing their part in empty interactions on a daily basis. How do we decipher what is real and what is not? Will we be encouraged to care deeply for each other or sail past our days thinking that we did by tossing around a few words that sound pleasant enough? Is it more disrespectful to say nothing and mean it, or to say words we don’t mean anyway?

It leaves me to wonder what has happened to the core value of our societies. Has fundamental respect been forgotten or is it no longer as valued? Or is it there in all of our hearts, but we perhaps have different priorities that take away time from quality interactions? And in what ways can we build more genuine respect for oneself, one another, and our society? Our foundation of respect, whether passed down through the family unit or taught through institutional structures, is something we should strive to build on everyday.

Respect for each other and society reflects in the way that we also relate to our material culture. We are driven by a collective consumer culture that is a powerful force on our desires and what we will work for. I ask myself if what I buy means something to my life, and if so, what does it mean? Let us imagine material culture as something that correlates for our respect for self and society. Do we take care of what we buy? Do we care about the conditions in which things are made? What was its production process? What are the impacts of what I am buying? Am I going to choose to care or not care about what I put closest to my skin on a daily basis? If we take a moment to see each material object as a part of our society’s rhythm, we may begin to consider all those very important questions of why or why not a particular garment deserves our desire and ownership. The material used in a garment’s creation, the way a company treats its producers and employees, and the narrative of the body of work are all important questions, and will directly impact the lives of those involved in making and designing clothes. If we consider the grocery stores we buy groceries from and whether the food was locally produced or if farmers were properly paid for their labour, it may change what we eat and the lives of those farming and delivering produce. By having an awareness of our own material culture, we learn to respect our physical bodies and sense of identity through what we wear and eat. We can begin to construct a mindful concept of respect beginning with ourselves at the core.

My passion towards fostering a community of respect brings together philosophies from my roots in the Chinese culture and the genuine Canadian spirit. I hope that other new Canadians will be inspired in a similar way. Learning from one another with the common denominator of respect and reverence is what I hope to help others discover in my own professional and personal journey. And as a result, together, we will create a society that genuinely values others and where people will consistently feel respected and demonstrate respect.


Sabrina Hao was born in China and studied at the University of Toronto. She is the principal of Quartat Lifestyle Consulting. Her passion is to help her students realize their potential and become a respectful and active part of society.